If Severe Enough, One Action Can Constitute A Hostile Environment

In late August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that “one action” is sufficient to create a hostile work environment claim if it is sufficiently severe, especially uninvited, physical and intimate, bodily contact.

In Berry v. Chicago Transit Auth., Cynthia Berry sued the Chicago Transit Authority under Title VII of the 1964 Civil rights Act alleging sex discrimination and hostile environment harassment. At issue, an incident where Berry was playing cards with co-workers. She was asked to move to allow another employee to play, but refused to do so. A male co-worker then allegedly picked her up by her breasts and rubbed his body against hers before bringing her down to the ground forcefully and pushing her into a fence. When Berry complained to her manager, he responded that she was a “pain in the butt” and could lose her job if she filed a complaint.

In order to prove a case for sexual harassment, you must show that you have been subjected to unwelcome conduct that creates a hostile environment based on your sex that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of your employment.

Here, the federal trial court dismissed all claims. On appeal the 7th Circuit held that the dismissal was in error, explaining that the co-worker’s actions as alleged “qualify undeniably as unwelcome sexual conduct that establishes a hostile work environment.”

Further, because all inferences must be drawn in favor of the plaintiff, a reasonable fact finder could find that manager thwarted any legitimate investigation and a hence, the CTA was negligent – or worse – in responding to her report of harassment.

While generally sexual harassment based on a hostile environment involves more than one incident of unwelcome conduct, where the conduct is sufficiently severe, one act may be enough. For more information, or if you have been the victim of sexual harassment at work, please call Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, dedicated to protecting employee’s rights.